‘Like Deftones Meets Miles Davis’: Tulsa’s Tori Ruffin Gets Freaky
“Music definitely drives me,” says guitarist Tori Ruffin. “I’m always trying to learn, always trying to create.”
A Tulsan by way of Detroit, Austin and Los Angeles, Tori Ruffin is the founding member of Freak Juice, a funky, hard-rocking music collaborative that includes musicians Charlie Redd (bass), Stanley Fary (drums) and Christopher Simpson (vocals). Exhorting fans to “Get in the Blender,” Freak Juice delivers music that owes as much to the party ethos of ’80s hair metal bands as it does to the social justice messaging of Marvin Gaye. “It’s kind of like Deftones meets Miles Davis with some funk and hip-hop thrown in,” Ruffin says. For the band’s followers, known as Juicemakers, you couldn’t pour a more potent blend.
Born in Chicago, Ruffin spent his early childhood in Detroit before moving to Los Angeles as a young teen. He got his first guitar, a Gibson with an amp, from his grandfather. A few chords later, Ruffin was in his first band, which included his sister’s hippie boyfriend, whose record collection was filled with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Ruffin listened to all of it and more.
“Here we were, and these are all Black guys, and we’re in the basement playing Rush,” Ruffin says. “We were playing the Isley Brothers, of course, and James Brown, too, so we had all of those styles, but it was a big rock band. If you played guitar, you were trying to play some rock guitar.”
Talking to Ruffin about his career is never linear and always entertaining. There’s the story about his early days with an Austin-based fusion band: “They found the lord, and I found the devil, so I started playing cover music with [future Freak Juice bassist] Charlie Redd,” he says. Or the one about giving guitar lessons to prolific voice actress Cree Summer and ending up signed to Capitol Records. And, of course, there were those two gigs — 30 years apart — in Sexual Chocolate, the fictional backing band for Eddie Murphy’s flamboyant lounge singer alter ego, Randy Watson, in the enduring cult classic Coming to America (1988) and the film’s recent sequel, Coming 2 America (2021).
“The more people you can play music with, the more colors you can learn to paint with,” Ruffin says.
In the intervening years, Ruffin has played with countless high-profile acts, everyone from Prince, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey to Lenny Kravitz, Mick Jagger and Smokey Robinson. For 25 years, he’s also served as lead guitarist for Morris Day and the Time.
While Ruffin is grateful for his long and interesting career as a working musician, Freak Juice is the side project that’s always held a special place in his heart. After 20 years of commuting to the band’s home base in Tulsa to play shows, Ruffin finally bought a house and settled in, encouraged by Redd, his longtime friend and bandmate, and won over by the city’s affordable housing and the relative ease of remote session work. He even became a local entrepreneur, operating a bar and venue, the Juicemaker Lounge, with his brother Greg.
Ruffin’s been a fan of Tulsa’s music scene from his first show. “We were at the Mercury Lounge, and we had a chance to play two sets of original music,” he remembers. “If you’re good, people hang out and come listen. I’ve always believed that, and sure enough, I got to fulfill that in Tulsa. The cost of living is right, and people are wonderful. You know who’s who in terms of that. You know who really loves you, and you know who doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. In L.A., everybody smiles in your face, but you don’t know who’s for you or against you — it’s that Hollywood thing.”
Last fall, Freak Juice released They Call Us Juice on Tulsa’s nonprofit Horton Records label. The album embodies the band’s special blend of social commentary, delivered with genre-busting, ear-pleasing tunes and serious musicianship. “Hands to the Sky” reflects on a year of injustice, while “Hypocrite” is a reggae-tinged critique of the previous presidential administration.
“I’ve always been deeply affected by the social climate and what’s going on in the world, but I’ve always believed there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ruffin explains. “If I can write on things that affect me and offer some ray of hope and light to bring people closer together and just bring more harmony and love, then that’s what I want to do. I know it sounds sappy and cheesy, but that’s how I feel.”
One of the hardest-rocking tracks on the album is “Dirty Little Secret,” a song that hits close to Ruffin’s adopted home. The lyrics recount the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. The city’s Black Wall Street, a prosperous financial district powered by Black businesses, was destroyed, along with the entire Greenwood District, home to the majority of the city’s Black population. Despite the devastating loss of life and property, the incident went largely unreported for decades. Ruffin first learned about it after he started playing in Tulsa.
“It was a thriving metropolitan city, and they bombed it and burned it to the ground,” Ruffin says. “I had never been taught about it, and nobody had ever mentioned it to me. It wasn’t in any history books or classes. I was blown away.”
Ruffin has embraced Tulsa, despite its complicated past. “I think it’s just another product of the South,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel worse about Tulsa. I don’t think it makes me feel more guarded. It’s just how you feel when you grow up dealing with racism your entire life. You’re not really shocked by anything.”
As the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre approaches, Ruffin continues to hope for a better tomorrow. “I always thought by this time in my life, it would be so much better,” he says. “We just have to keep fighting for it, man, and keep loving each other. That’s what I hope for. Keep striving for inclusivity and don’t stay silent when you see some bulls*** going on.”